Valley Bounty: Mass Food Delivery, Mycoterra Farm

Our new routines of constant sanitization have been unfamiliar to many of us. But the team at Mycoterra Farm has been keeping it clean for years.

“We run a sterile lab, we’re very familiar with microbes,” explained Julia Coffey who owns Mycoterra Farm, which produces mushrooms at an indoor facility in South Deerfield. “The protocol that people are having to learn now in society is part of our daily practices.”

Mushroom growth begins with mycelium. Mycelium are the vegetative bodies of the fungi that produce mushrooms. Comparing it to a plant, you can think of the mycelium as the roots and the mushroom as the fungi’s flower.

To grow mushrooms, you need to first create a surface, called a substrate, for the mycelium to grow on. On Mycoterra Farm, the team creates a substrate by mixing sawdust and grains.

“All of the substrate needs to be sterilized in order to give the mushrooms a competitive advantage over other organisms … like yeast, bacteria, molds, and even viruses,” Coffey said.

Once the substrate has been put into bags, the bags are loaded into a commercial autoclave, which is a chamber designed to sterilize materials.

After the substrate has been sterilized in the autoclave, it’s brought directly into Mycoterra Farm’s 7,000 square foot ‘clean room,’ which is designed to maintain extremely low levels of particulates. All the air coming into the room is UV-treated and run through an efficient HEPA air filter. The room’s surfaces are all sanitized regularly and the staff observe strict sterile procedures, including consistent hand washing and wearing gloves and masks.

When it comes time to inoculate the substrate with mushroom spawn, the staff work in front of a Laminar Flow Bench, which is specially designed to create a particulate-free airflow environment.

“Because, as the world is now learning, we carry a microbiome surrounding our bodies,” Coffey said. “That clean airflow [from the flow bench] helps maintain the sterile integrity of our substrate material as we perform our inoculations.”

Once inoculated, the mushroom bags are sealed. They then incubate in a sterile environment while the mycelium grows. Once the fungi reach a critical stage of growth, the mushroom bags are moved from the sterile clean room and into the grow room, where they fruit, producing the mushrooms that we eat.

Over her years of mushroom farming, Coffey has constantly had to adapt to perfect her farm’s sterile methodology in the face of encroaching microbes.

“Nature is smarter than we give her credit for,” she said. “The capacity of microbes is really astounding.”

With those years of battling microbes under her belt, Coffey took the early reports of coronavirus seriously. In February, she started equipping her staff with gloves and rubbing alcohol at all their farmers’ markets.

The week of March 9th, the Northampton Senior Center stopped hosting public events, including the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market, due to coronavirus. Restaurants were beginning to shut down and rumors were swirling that the local colleges would be shuttering their campuses.

“I started to panic,” Coffey said. “In the first quarter, farmers’ market sales are a critical part of our income because restaurant sales tend to be slower.”

With markets disappearing, and the possibility of plummeting restaurant sales looming, Coffey knew her business needed to adapt. She began brainstorming with her crew and other vendors from the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market.

They thought, “Instead of bringing people out of their houses when they need to be staying in, why don’t we aggregate products from other farmers and bring them to people at home?” Coffey said.

One of Coffey’s crew members put together a website for a new Mass Food Delivery service, that would deliver local food directly to customers’ doors. A few other farms expressed interest, so Coffey figured they would give it a shot and hopefully fill a little bit of the demand left over from the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market’s closure.

Coffey shared out the website in mid-March. “There were thousands of hits within minutes,” she said. “Our site crashed within two hours of going live.”

Coffey’s crew scrambled to upgrade the site’s server capacity, then sat back and watched with surprise as order after order rolled in.

In the first week, they made 89 deliveries. The numbers have only risen from there.

“Since we launched the site we’ve had well over one million hits,” Coffey said.

Mass Food Delivery is officially operational and accepting orders at massfooddelivery.com.

They offer a wide range of products from local farms, including produce from Kitchen Garden Farm, Lakeside Organics, Red Fire Farm, Queen’s Greens, Simple Gifts Farm, and Winter Moon Roots; honey from Red Barn Honey; cheese from Grace Hill Farm; tortillas from Mi Tierra Tortillas, tinctures and ghee from Sweet Birch Herbals, milk from Mapleline Farm, apples from Bolton Orchards, and mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm.

Mass Food Delivery is delivering throughout Massachusetts, with the exception of the southeastern, south central, and the Cape and Islands regions of the state. They accept both SNAP and HIP and will wave their $10 delivery fee for any SNAP customers.

For her part, Coffey sees that her experience running a sanitized operation is an asset during the COVID emergency.

“I’ve had our food delivery packing crew wearing face masks, gloves, and basically observing the clean-lab procedure in the food packing area,” she said.

On the other hand, it’s taken time to work out the complicated logistics of starting up a door-to-door delivery service overnight.

“We’re learning as we go,” Coffey said. “We’re not tech gurus, we’ve never done a home delivery business before.”

Mass Food Delivery is never going to be a logistics juggernaut like Amazon. But to Coffey, that’s okay,  because they’re providing a timely community service.

“The need is clearly there,” she said. “On the farmer end, still getting their products to market. And on the consumer end, being able to safely source local food at home.”

CISA has been keeping track of how local farms and food businesses are adapting to coronavirus. For more information, visit buylocalfood.org.

Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

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